Eddie Vanderdoes, a highly recruited defensive lineman from California signed with Notre Dame. Then he signed with UCLA. But Notre Dame did not release him from his National Letter of Intent. Here is a quick Q&A on how this is possible.
Q: How can UCLA give Vanderdoes a scholarship?
A: Permission to contact (commonly and incorrectly called a transfer “release” or being “released from a scholarship”) is tied to receiving athletics aid in an athlete’s first year at his or her new school. The National Letter of Intent is tied to eligibility for competition.
Q: So what happens to Vanderdoes now?
A: Assuming nothing else odd happens, Vanderdoes will not be eligible to compete for UCLA as a freshman. But this is not a redshirt year as Vanderdoes is charged one season of eligibility in all sports. When he finishes this year, Vanderdoes will have four years left on his five-year clock to play three seasons of competition. What he can do this year is receive an athletics scholarship and practice with the football team.
Q: How can UCLA sign and recruit Vanderdoes with the NLI in effect?
A: When an athlete asks for a release from the NLI, the school has three options. First, the school can simply deny the request for a release. Second, the school can grant a full release from the NLI, which means the NLI’s basic penalty (sit out a year, get charged a season in all sports) no longer applies.
But there is a third option. Schools can release a signee from the NLI recruiting ban, but not release him from rest of the NLI provisions. This allows an athlete to be recruited by other schools, but without a full release, the athlete will be subject to the basic penalty if he or she enrolls at another school.
Q: Could ND single out UCLA and refuse to release Vanderdoes to that school in particular?
A: No, NLI releases are all or nothing, and cannot be limited to or exclude any specific schools or conferences. Releases from the recruiting ban are typically used to get around this limitation. Athletes are released from the recruiting ban to all schools, but are told they will not be granted a full release if they enroll in certain schools or conferences. After seeing where the athlete intends to go, the school then chooses to grant or deny the full release.
Q: Does Vanderdoes have any options now that ND is refusing to release him?
A: Vanderdoes has two appeal opportunities. His first appeal is to the NLI Committee. If Vanderdoes does not like the result there, he can appeal again to the NLI Appeals Committee. This is different than permission to contact, where appeals are handled on-campus, but outside of the athletic department.
Q: What does this mean for the future of the NLI?
A: Other schools are watching both the Vanderdoes and Matthew Thomas situations closely and asking the schools to not release them from their NLIs to prevent future prospects from pushing harder for their own releases. But as Vanderdoes showed, there is only so much the NLI can do to ensure an athlete enrolls at another school. While football coaches and athletic directors might not like a world where prospects must be continuously recruited even after signing, they would definitely prefer it to one where the NLI and all that extra recruitment might not make a difference.
The fact that Notre Dame lost the signee is significant when it comes to future implications. The terms of the NLI are controlled by the Conference Commissioners Association. No athletic director would seem to have a closer working relationship with the other FBS commissioners than Jack Swarbrick, given Notre Dame’s special place in the BCS. Swarbrick and Notre Dame are better positioned to push for changes than another other single school and athletic director.
Q: What might those changes look like?
A: The most obvious would be to prevent other schools from offering an athletic scholarship to athletes who signed with another school for their first year. That would be a much bigger burden for athletes seeking to break the NLI and would bring it in line with permission to contact for enrolled students. On the other hand, the way permission to contact is tied to athletics aid is itself under scrutiny.
Other options would be to prevent signees who enroll at other schools from practicing in the first year, extending the required sitting out to two years and charge two seasons of competition, or the most drastic action, permanent ineligibility if the athlete does not enroll where they signed. The public backlash though, to adding even more school-friendly terms to an already very school-friendly document, would be considerable.
Q: What lessons can we learn from this?
A: As much criticism as the NLI receives, it is not ironclad. It imposes a set of penalties for breaking it, and athletes willing to live with those penalties can decide to not be bound by the NLI. The same goes for permission to contact.
Vanderdoes is also from the class of prospects who probably did not need to sign an NLI. He could have requested just a scholarship agreement, which binds the school to him but leaves him free to continue to be recruited. Or he could have dragged out his recruitment, confident that a scholarship would be available at just about any school for a player of his caliber, no matter how late in the process it was.
If the Vanderdoes and Thomas dramas cause a push for change to the NLI, the CCA, athletic directors, and football coaches need to keep this in mind. The more onerous the NLI gets, the more prospects will refuse to sign it. That would be counterproductive to the goals of the ADs, coaches, and commissioners, but would create a more nuanced and likely more equitable scholarship marketplace.